I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the reset button. Most computer problems can be solved by rebooting. Our heater was malfunctioning and until the repairman could get there, I could keep it going by hitting the reset button. I started thinking about forest fires. We used to think fire was bad, but now that we understand forest ecology, we know that a good fire is a like the reset button for the forest, like rebooting the computer. It clears out a lot of pests and cruft and makes the forest healthier.
To be healthy humans, we need a reset button too. But we need lots of reset buttons, small, medium and large. We need to hit the small reset button a couple times every day, the medium button a few times per year, and the big reset button… well that’s the interesting one.
The small reset button can be anything. It’s the little breaks we offer ourselves every day and it can be anything. For me it can be a workout, some chocolate, a movie, a cup of tea and a book, lunch with a friend, or any of those little things we do just to have a little break. They do a couple of things for us. They give us some rest and set us up to tackle the challenges we have ahead of us. They can also be the things that give us meaning – lunch with a friend, movie with my wife, some volunteer work. It can be about creating a little space to be human and feel alive. No matter how much we love or hate our work, it’s essential to hit the small reset button a few times every day just to take stock. The musican Jimmy Buffet said, at 26:52 in this video: “Somehow I was lucky enough to get my thumb on the pulse of some people’s idea that they needed a little vacation every day of their lives.” That’s what the little reset button is. A little vacation every day of your life.
The medium reset button is the least interesting of the three. It’s like the small button, just more — the vacations we take, the visits home to family, that special concert we go to, things like that. It’s the least interesting not because I dislike vacations and concerts, but because the medium reset button is the one that people tend to spend the most time thinking and talking about. The ever-so-important small reset button is often unconscious or for too many people, absent entirely. It goes underappreciated while they think about the medium reset button. The BIG BUTTON is the one you think about languidly on the beach during a medium reset, but then the margarita wears off (I have Jimmy Buffet on the mind) and you get back to “reality.”
The BIG reset button is something that only comes along once in a while for most of us. It can be an extended sabbatical off from the same job, or it can be working eighty hours per week at two jobs while making a transition to something totally different. I’ve done the eight-month leave of absence to bum around, but it was really just a long version of the medium button. It was an extra long vacation, nothing more. Fantastic, but not a big reset. Neither it’s purpose nor it’s effect was the big reset. The big reset comes along, sometimes when you expect and sometimes when you don’t. Many people think they want to hit the BIG BUTTON but can’t. The opportunities for the big reset are actually plentiful, but we run from it screaming most of the time. I certainly have. If it isn’t scary, it’s probably not the BIG BUTTON.
I’ve hit the BIG BUTTON a couple of times. When I went to grad school or moved to Switzerland, those were major transitions, but not the BIG RESET. Mentally I was already there. Those were transitions from one thing to the other, without killing the power switch. The big resets were more open-ended and sometimes way smaller events to outside observers. I drove out of my programming job at MITRE with no idea what I would do with my future (aside from finish college in the short term, but not in computer science), but the greatest feeling of exhiliration imagineable. After college, I went to Alaska to work the fish processing plants because it was as far away from home as I could get without needing a work visa and it was as far away from Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, blah blah blah university culture. That particular adventure was less about hitting my own reset button than it was about hitting everyone else’s. After graduating with various honors and such, people kept implying that I was supposed to continue on that path. I had never cared excessively about grades in college. I was just passionate and so I got good grades. Though it wasn’t true, I’m sure, to my 22 year-old mind it seemed to me that I needed to reset everyone’s expectations about what I would do. So I went and worked the fish processing plants and delivered pizzas until people quit asking what I was really going to do with my life. Now I’m probably less susceptible to outside influence, but then I felt like I needed everyone to know that I was going to do what I wanted to do, not what they wanted me to do (and I must say, my parents were NOT part of the problem; they were the rare adults in my life who didn’t really care what I did as long as I was happy and making some contribution, whether that was cleaning fish or saving the world).
Most recently, after 20 years as a historian, I hit the BIG button and spent the summer as a National Park Ranger. Again, less dramatic than moving to a new country or embarking on my doctoral studies, but it was consciously aimed at hitting a button, though I wasn’t sure ahead of time whether or not it would be the BIG BUTTON. It was a great job, but mostly I’ve only had great jobs over the past twenty years. So it was less of a dream job for me than for other people (and in any case, I don’t dream about jobs!). But it was a huge reset. My historian job involves day after day alone in a room with just a computer. I can easily go three or four days and talk to nobody but my wife if I don’t make a solid effort. That might be fine for an introvert, but I genuinely like people. I rarely meet someone I dislike. As a ranger, it was out with the public all day long (less nature, more public than most people think). On average, I would spent about three hours per day talking to crowds, a total of 100–200 people per day. And then I spent a lot more time talking to people singly or in small groups. I spent almost no time with a computer and little time truly alone. And I realized that the solitary life of a scholar is not really my strength, I realized I’m actually a good public speaker, that I have the ability to inform entertain and occasionally even move people. A lot of friends said “Of course. You knew that before you started obviously.” But no, I did not. That was not how I saw myself. It is now. I’m a different person than before not because I’ve changed so much, but because I see myself differently. I set it up to go back to my old job after the ranger season, but one of the fundamental characteristics of the BIG BUTTON is that there is no going back. The big button changes you, so the job might be the same, but you are not.
The small reset button gives you some breathing room, it makes your bad situations palatable and, ideally lets you see your good situations. It helps keep you comfortable.
The BIG BUTTON makes you uncomfortable. It’s the one you hit when you are too comfortable, when your creativity and productivity have stagnated on the cushy couch of your mind, when you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time and it doesn’t do it for you anymore, when the challenges of the past have become the routine tasks of today. The BIG BUTTON takes you out of the comfort zone, teaches you about who you are, shows you new strengths and weaknesses, shows you your potential, for good or ill. It isn’t a breather on the path, it’s the fork in the road, the resets that divide your life into before and after. It’s the Phoenix Button.
When is the last time you hit the reset button, large or small? What did it do for you?
[And this is for Mark and Ping, who just dropped everything in the professional careers, sold the house, moved to Taiwan. There’s no going back from hitting the Phoenix Button]